Pub Rants

The Art Of The Synop?

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STATUS: I’m having a very interesting cover discussion tomorrow. And I’m sharing a fairly hilarious cover discussion in my February newsletter so be on the look out for it.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? CHANGE by Tears For Fears

I actually should not be tackling this subject because for the most part, I don’t read or use synopses.

I know. Shocking. It’s the complete opposite of what you hear. I’m just the maverick in that department.

When I go out on submission with a project, I have my cover letter (many of which I’ve shared with my blog readers) and the full manuscript. That’s it.

If I’m selling something that’s a first in a series or trilogy, I’ll also include a one-page (2 tops) teaser blurb regarding the subsequent possible books.

The reason why? For the most part, from what I can tell, I’ve got many a client who can write one hell of a novel but suck at writing a synopsis. Seriously, it’s almost physically painful to wade through them. I end up asking more questions than the synopsis answered!

But sometimes you can’t escape it and we have to do it. When that happens, here are the tips that I tell my clients so they can write a half-decent synopsis.

1. As you begin, pretend that the reader of the synopsis has not read any prior books in said series so your opening paragraph or paragraphs, sums up the previous novel and explains the world (if that’s pertinent). It creates a base in which to build the rest. Often, even the editor won’t remember every character or background tidbit in a novel that they edited! Not to mention, when selling on synop, the editor may be sharing your explanation with folks who have, indeed, not read your work yet.

It helps to orient the reader in this way and if done right (and succinctly).it can go a long way to making a synopsis strong.

2. Outline your character or characters’ internal conflict.

3. Briefly outline your external conflict and plot points.

4. Once that is clear in your head (and on paper), then you have to decide how is the best way to convey both plot and theme in the synop. My suggestion? Start with plot first. Get that down in a clear, concise manner. This is what will happen in the novel. Once the plot path is clear, then go back and interweave why the heck the events unfolding are important to the story (which is theme.)

5. Now hand this off to a person who knows nothing about your work and see if they can follow the synopsis. If that person can’t, you know you’ve missed and you have some real work in front of you.

The real problem with writing the synopsis is that the story is so clear in the author’s head, they mistakenly assume that it’s clear on the page as well. After all, it makes perfect sense to them.

And when even that fails, just start writing. As long as we have sample chapters on hand, I can squeak by with a very short, one-pager synop that’s more teaser than it is full outline.

And it goes without saying that if you are a new or a debut writer, you must have a full manuscript. Still, even with that in hand, lots of agents request the synop so you might as well get as good as possible at it. I know that at conferences, they often host hour long sessions on how to write a decent one. Time well spent most likely.

25 Responses

  1. Enna said:

    Thank you for the (very helpful) suggestions!

    I have one question- I think I’ve read that synopses, for the most part, are to be written in present tense regardless of the tense of the novel. Is that true?

  2. mnfaure said:


    Yes, that’s true. Use the present tense no matter the tense of your novel. However, the tone and voice should still reflect that of the novel. 🙂

  3. Tiffany Schmidt said:

    Hi Kristen,
    Thanks for the helpful post. I find the synopsis to be the most challenging part – harder even than the dreaded query.

    My question relates to Enna’s about tense: my novel is told in two parts – the present interwoven with scenes from the past. Since the novel isn’t linear, should the query be?

    I’ve been struggling to fit both pieces into my synopsis, but I think I’ll take your advice from step #1 and treat the past sections as a prior book and do a summary paragraph before moving into the present.

    Thanks again!

  4. Kristin B said:

    I’ll be settling down to write a synopsis very soon, so this was both helpful and timely for me. Gah, I hate those things.

    I just finished judging partials for the first round of the RWA’s Golden Hearts, my very first time doing such a thing, and I discovered that I didn’t want to read the synopses until after I read the partial. I think reading the synop first makes it harder to verify that the author has, in fact, done a good job of setting the stage. Plus, I’m the type that likes to dive right in.

  5. AravisGirl said:

    Synopses scare the h*** out of me; Just last night I was trying to sum up my plot, but it just wasn’t coming across and made my story sound like a Star Wars knockoff, which it isn’t. :-/

    Thanks for the tips 🙂

  6. DebraLSchubert said:

    “The real problem with writing the synopsis is that the story is so clear in the author’s head, they mistakenly assume that it’s clear on the page as well. After all, it makes perfect sense to them.” BINGO!!

  7. Sherry Thomas said:

    LOL. I think I’ve told you this, Kristin, but when I realized that you do not require a synopsis, that was the moment you became my one-and-only.

    I figured, if I queried and got you, then I didn’t have to write a synopsis at all. 🙂

  8. Anonymous said:

    Synopsi (is that the plural of synopsis?) ought to be illegal.


    They have no other purpose than to drive writers to drink. Any book, even a bestseller, sounds ridiculous when reduced to two pages.

  9. chris k said:

    I hope every contest coordinator out there who still has a judged synopsis as part of their contest reads this.

    Your comments and suggestions are, as always, very much appreciated.


  10. Madison said:

    I HATE synops! Unfortunately, most of the agents I’ve submitted to want them. I wrote the best one I could, so we’ll see how it goes.

    I think more writers need more help on writing synops than any other aspect of our craft. They’re just plain hard.

  11. Anonymous said:

    I took a good class on synopsis writing by Laurie Schnebly Campbell at, who says it’s like writing an ad because you have to convince people they want what you sell. I still haven’t sold, but at least now I can write a synopsis without going stark raving mad.


  12. Peter Salomon said:

    I always run into the whole “if I could have written the story in 2 pages…I would have done that in the first place” thing and stare at a blank page trying to write a synopsis.

    With my latest, I read the manuscript in one sitting, spent some time getting the ‘voice’ of my protagonist ‘back’ (hadn’t really done that since I finished writing the last draft) and decided to let ‘him’ tell the synopsis to me as though I knew nothing about the story. Sounds odd, but it seems to have worked…

    well, so far at least…

  13. Beth said:


    The synopsis doesn’t have to follow the same structure as your book. In fact, it will probably work better if it doesn’t.

  14. JulieLeto said:

    A synopsis isn’t just used before you sell a book. It’s often used by the publisher in order to inform art, marketing, foreign rights agents, etc, about the plot of the book. So writing a good synopsis isn’t something you just never have to do.

    Kristin, don’t you find that with your clients? The synopsis doesn’t have to be very in depth, but it’s still the storyline from start to finish.

  15. otto said:

    Hi! I came across your blog while following Lisa Shearin’s, and I had an industry question specifically about agents and I was hoping you wouldn’t mind if I asked. I got a rejection on a manuscript because my story was too similar to something the agent had just sold (specifically she said “this is too close for me even to consider.”) Should I be worried about this? Does that mean my idea is too similar and won’t sell or will look like a rip-off? Or does that juts mean it’s similar enough that it would be competing with their current client. I’m pretty much freaked out right now. Anyway, thanks for your time.

  16. Allison Brennan said:

    I hate writing synopses, I hate reading them, I hate thinking about them. I love my editor who does not require a detailed synopsis. But learning how to write one has been something I’ve been working hard on. I don’t need a detailed synopsis to sell, but I recently learned that in some situations, a synopsis comes in very handy for those *other* rights . . . and I had to go back to the drawing board.

    BTW, I can write a decent synopsis on a book I’ve already written. Hook. Character. Conflict. Resolution. I can’t write a synopsis on an idea because I don’t know what is going to happen. And it doesn’t work to say, “There’s a dead body. Hero and heroine meet, have great conflicts, nearly die, catch the killer, then live happily ever after.”

  17. ozma914 said:

    I think I craft a fairly good synopsis, but it’s pure torture — one of the most hated things I do as a writer. It’s one of the reasons why, after my agent left the business two years ago, I’ve had trouble dragging myself back into the fiction selling biz.

  18. Leah Hultenschmidt said:

    I think most editors realize authors hate writing synopses and there aren’t very many good ones out there. But Julie Leto is absolutely right about how a summary can help with marketing, publicity, cover copy, and anyone in the editorial dept. outside the acquiring editor who wants to get a feel for the book without reading 400 pages of manuscript.

    “…more teaser than it is full outline”

    Eee – no, please! The synopsis can be as short as a paragraph, but please give me the end. That’s the only reason I really need it. The tease is what the cover letter is for.

  19. Jessica Milne said:

    I love writing teasers but hate writing synops. I have serious issues with them for some unknown reason.

    Thanks for the tips! 🙂 I’ll look back on this when it’s time to tackle the dreaded synopsis again.